Bon Aqua Springs Resort
Bon Aqua Springs Resort, once the largest health spa and summer retreat in Middle Tennessee, was known as the “Queen of the Southern Spas” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the western Highland Rim, the Hickman County resort’s temperate days, cool nights, and four mineral springs offered treatment for medical conditions ranging from iron-poor blood to gout, dyspepsia, and yellow fever.
Revolutionary War veteran Abner Ponder settled near Bon Aqua Springs in 1806 and opened a log tavern, Ponder’s Inn. He is buried in the cemetery on the property. In 1823, William B. Ross bought the land; he sold William Locke Weems the springs and over four hundred acres in 1837. Within two years, Weems built fifteen log cabins and began advertising a health resort called Bon Aqua, meaning “good water.” He operated the retreat until his death in 1852. Ownership then passed to his son, Phillip, who died in 1864 from Civil War wounds. In August 1863, Federal troops captured Dick McCann with his band of fourteen guerrillas, who had taken refuge at the resort. After the war, the Bon Aqua Springs Association acquired the land, replaced log cabins with cottages, and erected several other structures, including a large hotel.
John W. Thomas, future president of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, built the primary residence while he owned the property. When the Nashville and Tuscaloosa Railroad Company completed the line from Dickson to Centreville within one-half mile of the resort in 1879, Bon Aqua’s popularity increased. Nashville’s wealthy families spent summer weeks at the resort with their husbands joining them on weekends. The Tennessee Bar Association was organized at the resort in 1881, and their first annual convention was held there the following year. In 1885, the spa hosted a September gathering of two thousand Confederate veterans and their families. After an 1888 fire destroyed the hotel, new owners Henry Dean and Leon Walker constructed a replacement in 1901 that could accommodate five hundred guests in 101 rooms. Activities included dancing, concerts, fox hunting, horseback riding, bowling, fishing, billiards, and tennis. A “blowing cave” cooled dairy products and the croquet lawn. At the height of its popularity, the resort had an open-air pavilion, a swimming pool, a lake, and a stone reservoir with gravity-fed pipes funneling water to the hotel. The hotel’s dining room touted beef from Kansas City, dairy products from Belle Meade Plantation, and fruits and vegetables from its own garden, orchard, and vineyard.
As the railway age gave way to the automobile era and scientific medicine replaced mineral cures, Bon Aqua declined. After 1910, the Bon Aqua Springs Resort Association acquired the property, advertising two hundred lots for sale with recreational amenities, including a theater and golf course. Few tracts were sold; by 1925 the property again changed hands. Buyer Harry L. White operated the hotel into the 1930s, dismantling it around 1945. In 2005, the land was sold in tracts, and large stands of two-hundred- to four-hundred-year-old trees were saved by conservationists and state government. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles B. Thorne, “The Watering Spas of Middle Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly (November 1970): 321-59; W. Jerome D. Spence and David L. Spence, A History of Hickman County (1900); Jill K. Garrett, Historical Sketches of Hickman County, Tennessee (1978)